Friday, March 21

Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it tells a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).

It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.

The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christians because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions—how to regard the Gentiles, who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).

But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).

The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people have received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).

The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story: These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).

Saturday, March 22

Matthew 20:7-19: the Lord’s third and final prediction of the His coming Passion (Cf, Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34). This prophecy is much more detailed than the earlier two (16:21; 17:22-23), mentioning the Lord’s manumission to the chief priests (26:57), His condemnation by them (26:66), His handing over to Pilate (27:2), and the mockery and scourging (27:26-30). Unlike Mark (10:34), Matthew also specifies crucifixion (27:32-44), a form of execution practiced by the Romans.

Jeremiah 39: Jerusalem was an Israelite capital since the early tenth century, and its Temple stood since the reign of Solomon. That long period of Salvation History comes to an end in the present chapter. Respecting the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple, the Lord will declare—a few chapters later—“ Behold, what I have built I will tear down, and what I have planted I will pluck up, that is, this whole land” (45:4).

Solomon’s Temple was not destroyed in battle. It was deliberately razed, rather, when the fighting was all over. This destruction came from a cool decision and represented Babylon’s determination that Judah would no longer be even a little power on the earth. The treasures of the Temple were carried away to Babylon, as well, and Judah’s official leaders were duly executed.

The religious experience of Judaism is about to change dramatically. From this point on, there will always be more Jews living outside the Holy Land than inside. Judah’s exile in Babylon lasted until 517 BC, exactly seventy years from Jerusalem’s fall in 587. There would be no temple, no active priesthood, and no sacrifice during the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, nor would any of those institutions ever again occupy the front and center stage of Israel’s religious experience, even after their restoration at the end of the Captivity.

The final editor of the Book of Jeremiah knew that the fall of Jerusalem was not the real end of the story, even though it marked the end of the period of the kings and the First Temple. This post-Exilic editor knew that Jerusalem was restored in the next generation; he knew also of the fall of Babylon itself in 539.

Sunday, March 23

Matthew 20:20-28: Matthew and Mark follow the third prediction of the Lord’s sufferings by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.

In both Gospel accounts the Lord’s response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to “drink the cup whereof I am to drink,” and Mark’s version contains yet another question about their being “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”

Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord’s Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord’s Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted.

Matthew’s version, moreover, presents Zebedee’s wife, the mother of the two brothers, approaching the Lord to make the request on their behalf. This woman, elsewhere known as Salome, Matthew calls simply “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” The detail is certainly significant, inasmuch as this designation, “mother of Zebedee’s sons,” appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the Cross.

In the first of these instances Zebedee’s wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the Cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes—a before and after—is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.

Monday, March 24

Matthew 20:29-34: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though not in exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark’s account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke’s version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?

First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shifts took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.

Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.

It appears that in Matthew’s two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church’s preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (paragein), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.

The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Matthew’s construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.

Tuesday, March 25

Luke 1:26-38: At the beginning of his ministry Ezekiel was shown a scroll, on which he beheld writing “on the inside and on the outside” (2:10). The prophet was commanded to eat the scroll, which was, of course, God’s Word of revelation.

Now God’s Word, according to St. John Chrysostom, “is ever eaten yet never consumed,” so the scroll of Ezekiel was not destroyed when he ate it. Indeed, John the Seer later described his own memorable encounter with that same document (Revelation 5:1).

I suggest that we look more closely at that revelatory scroll and inquire, more specifically, why it is written on both sides and what this means.

Since the Scroll is God’s Word, the inside of it, if I am not deceived, is the Father’s eternal Logos written from within. The Father writes inasmuch as He begets the Word, God from God, light from light. Also, in order not to be taken for Arians, let us surely and promptly insist that at no point did God begin to write this Word; He is, rather, the unbegotten Scribe, ho Grammateus ho anarchos, who pens His Composition in the grammar of eternity.

As for the Scroll, it is the eternal inscription of the Father, His only begotten Son, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. Indeed, according to the Creed, the Scroll is of one essence (homoousios) with the Scribe. The written message, therefore, is absolutely complete and sufficient, though no one but God can read it; no one knows the Son but the Father.

For reasons having to do with goodness and love, however, the Father is not satisfied with keeping this eternal Word on the inside, all to Himself, as it were. He determines, rather, for the Scroll also to be written ad extra, on the outside, so that the goodness and love of the Scribe and the Scroll may be shared with a multitude of readers—so that the love with which the Father loves the Son may be in them, and He in them.

Therefore, with the willing (but strictly necessary) cooperation of a second writer, a young Galilean woman, the Scroll is inscribed on a second side, when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The Scroll remains, nonetheless, one and the same, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. It is a single Scroll inscribed on two faces, positioned in the two directions that constitute Salvation History, homo Deo, Deus homini.

These two directions—man to God and God to man—indicate that the Scroll is the medium of a transmission, and not the medium only, but also the Mediator, the single link between God and all that is not God. Those on the outside have no access to the inside—the divine mind and purpose—except through that Scroll.

Wednesday, March 26

Matthew 21:23-32: This parable, which has no parallel in Mark and Luke, is a study in contrast between two brothers. Matthew inserts it here as a “link” story, and in fact it serves that literary function perfectly. First, its reference to John the Baptist (verse 32) links the parable to the foregoing discussion in 21:23-27. Second, its reference to the vineyard prepares for the parable that is to follow (verses 33-46). In addition, the parable of the two sons fits admirably into Matthew’s long series of controversial encounters between Jesus and those that are preparing to kill Him (21:23—22:46).

This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.

We do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally-applicable message common to all of them?

There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more or less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.

This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression; namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home can grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.

The Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum total of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.

Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.

Thursday, March 27

Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences.

The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.

The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with him heard these things, he said to him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.

In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.

The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.

The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill-treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.

Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.

Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).

Friday, March 28

Matthew 22:15-22: In Matthew this series of conflict stories has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government—the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.

In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again a confluence of enemies intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).

The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians had no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.

This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).

The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.

The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).

That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.